It’s strange how memories get triggered. A turn in conversation, a photograph, a scent, a sound, sometimes even a touch or a slight breeze. Childhood memories remain vivid if attached to any one of these things. Other memories return when confronted with a trigger. The past becomes clarified, for better or for worse. Perhaps a new context is revealed to us. Perhaps not; maybe an old one reasserts itself to comfort us, warn us, remind us, or any number of motives about something we forgot or simply wish to remember.
Today, I went to the Unveiling of my best friend’s tombstone. The rabbi spoke about the reason for this ceremony: to remember and forever carry with us the memory of her life. A glimpse of her on a swing in elementary school, another of dancing at a junior high dance, chatting at get-togethers with our mutual circle of friends, becoming closer until we were best friends. At the luncheon following the ceremony, her sister, dad, and I discussed her love of expletives; a memory popped up. In college, she sent me a letter (my age is made evident here since email was in its infancy) which began traditionally, “Dear Leslie,” but was then followed line after line with a certain “f” word. There may have been a few other words before the “Love Deb,” but I can’t remember. I do remember laughing my ass off.
The rabbi spoke of her strength in dealing with the disease that killed her, but I always think about her sense of humor. I would love to speak with her again about all that has happened and is happening in my life: the fibroid tumor, the part-time job with crazy hours, the loss of my home, the move back with the parental units, the starting of a new career, and more. I think of what she would say; it’s nothing exact, just knowing there would be quite a bit of her sailor-like vocabulary in there. I smile. The stress falls away, if only for the moment. I’m sure there are other, and better, stories. Memories are fleeting; the triggers recall them to the present, but they don’t always remain.
I refer to the fox in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “Le Petit Prince” when discussing memories and senses. After the Little Prince has tamed (befriended) the fox, he finds it’s time for him to return home. He asks the fox about the purpose of this time spent together. He considers it a waste of time; why befriend one another if, in the end, the Little Prince will never see the fox again. The fox explains the meaning of friendship and, in fact, what’s essential in life. He looks at a wheat field and states how the wheat had no meaning for him. As a fox, it is not part of his diet. Now, it will always remind him of the color of the Little Prince’s hair. It will not be a sad memory due to their friendship. His life has been enriched.
The fox also explains how each becomes responsible for the other. The Little Prince had left his beloved rose to travel and gain knowledge. When he first arrived on Earth, he became dismayed and wept at the discovery of a garden of roses; his rose was not unique. However, the fox enlightens him. Because the Little Prince loves her and takes care of her by watering her and shielding her from the cold breeze, she is unique to him. She is like no other rose. She brightens and perfumes his planet. They are responsible for and unique to each other. The Little Prince’s footsteps are like no others for the fox. He doesn’t have to be afraid he is being hunted. He is most certainly not like any other fox for the Little Prince. What’s essential is invisible to the eyes; one can only truly see with the heart. This is the fox’s lesson.
I have read this book with my students for almost eighteen years. Once we arrive at this point in the story, my students are asked to think how their own memories are triggered. Easier said than done. A student understood very clearly when she described how a certain perfume reminded her of her grandmother. The memory only made her feel sad and miss her grandmother even more.
I have one powerful memory of coming home from elementary school. How many times I walked home from school, you can do the math. I don’t remember my grade or exact age. The autumn wind, brisk and crisp, whipped around my legs as my feet crunched on leaves. The books weighed down my arms. I didn’t have a backpack or book bag until college. I turned the final corner, arrived at the driveway, and began the long walk up to the door. Even as I clasped the screen door latch, I could hear the music. As I opened the front door, a wave of warmth washed over me accompanied by the sound of Pavarotti’s voice and the smell of tomato sauce. As he made meatballs, my dad’s singing aligned with the Italian tenor. The memory ends there. I know I must’ve gone into the kitchen, greeted my dad, and then continued into the den to do my homework. I don’t really remember. I also don’t know why this one particular time when my dad was singing and cooking, which he still does, remains more vivid than other occasions. I only know this memory is evoked with the sound of Pavarotti or with the smell of tomato sauce.
Childhood memories tend to be hazy, especially with age. Many have faded to vague impressions or a split-second image with little to no context. Some stand out, though, very clearly. I believe these memories are the ones that make us unique. How we remember friends, family, and all those for whom we have been and are responsible, keeps them close.